Mira seldom had trouble carrying a job to its completion. This time, she was having trouble getting paid. And for the most absurd of reasons.
The town’s treasurer was a portly woman who must have seen fifty winters, her chapped lips mumbling some kind of excuse as her fingers held onto the table. Next to her, standing still and silent, the town’s Augur had yet to speak.
“It is a bit unexpected,” the treasurer said after a while, trying to lure her in with a checkered smile. Mira noticed the way her skin pulled on her muscles and bones, showing the stains of age and the inevitable degeneration of flesh. “Don’t you think so?”
“Actually I do not,” she replied. Mira’s voice was a bit low for a woman, maybe a tad too melodious for someone in her line of work. She was used to being considered strange, maybe even eerie: her grease-covered body, hairless from her head to toe, her mechanical junctures showing just a hint of tetraceramid where they peeked through the black stains, and her color-coded eyes, currently moving from a neutral silver to a far more confrontative crimson.
And the soft whirr and hum of her engines from the Eretimes.
But this was far from a worthwhile excuse not to pay her.
“I am used to people trying to save on their silver right at the last moment.” She blinked, her eyes turning a thoughtful blue for a moment. That line felt pre-sculpted into her psyche. People these days did not use silver as currency. But she felt like saying so. Parts of her mind still belonged to a world that she had never known. “I would hope you pay the same kindness to very Venator to whom you commission a hunt. Take a good look there. I did exactly what you asked me to.”
Laying on a table in the treasurers’ office was the charred body of what had once been a man. Its chest was opened from inside, so that his ribs sprouted like a maw. His head rested on the floor, at the end of a stretched neck that looked like a scaly noodle. His limbs had mutated and multiplied in a series of claw-like appendages. An Eerie, and not a man anymore. The town’s former Constable and ruler, now met with a terrible fate.
After all, you don’t go alone in the forest.
Everyone should know about that.
“I can see that. What I am not sure about is how we can justify paying… well…” she gave Mira a once-over.
She rolled her now-golden eyes. Curious how people got reservations about her nature just when it was time to pay, but not when they gave her a job to do.
“…a machine from the Eretimes,” the Augur interjected. Mira looked at the white-clad figure, the woman turned her head to he direction, even though her eyes were, as it was expected, covered by a thin metal mask. Steel. So she was not even that high in rank, but she did not expect the Order to send their most important members in such a secluded and far-off place.
She was some kind of missionary.
The Augur gave her a thin smile and something inside Mira jerked in sudden disgust. She did not like their kind. Slimy plotters, thinking that just because they could see into the unseen they were above everyone else.
She knew a thing or two about that.
“Seems like your eyes are keen enough,” Mira said, licking her porcelain lips with her copper tongue. Another compelled behavior she was not really sure where it came from.
“Always,” the Augur conceded, never losing her smile even at her slight, “I think we should feel blessed rather than worried by your presence. You came right at the perfect time, when poor Auritio met with this terrible misfortune. You gave him a clean and merciful end.” She turned now to regard the treasurer. “We should not tempt the Spirits by second-guessing their guidance. Venator Mira helped us right when we needed it. She should be given her just reward.”
The treasurers’ hands gripped the edge of the table, turning paler with the pressure. She looked like a woman holding onto the last centimeter of space she was allowed be, the thinnest lifeline before she was forced to jump into the void.
At last, she deflated.
“I suppose that’s fair.”
She reached for her drawers and began to pile up thin slabs of steel with a punched hole – they used this as currency here south of the Apennines. Not as beautiful as ducali from Venexia, but, Mira thought, more practical. The treasurer counted the right amount and pulled a string between them, handling them to her.
“There. Down to the last scalia.“
Mira picked them up and put them in her bag, together with the rest of her supplies and her weapons.
“As was supposed to be, wasn’t it?” The Augur mused, that smile of hers never leaving her lips. “I will escort out guest out of your office, Katrina. Thank you for your service.”
“You are not supposed to thank me for a Fae-forsaken thing,” the portly woman replied, but the Augur ignored her.
Mira followed her outside.
Unlike the forested north, this part of the country was mostly gentle hills covered with red-roofed houses, and low walls. The presence of the Queen of Thorns was less strong. She felt it in the phantom pressure that loomed over her, but since she had come back from the lands further north, she had found that these people could live in relative peace.
That also mean they would not need much help from a Vestal. The Augur’s satisfied smile hinted that such arrangement might be soon to change.
One of the major hints was the large Temple being built at the top of a nearby mound – it dominated the town. Mira peered at the group of people working to complete the dome and the pipelines chambers.
“It is a beautiful effort,” the Vestal sighed, satisfied. “A concert of hope. We will be ready in time for winter.”
“Isn’t the Tide far less severe this far south?” Mira tilted her bald head to point at the palisade and the low wall that protected the town. A far cry from the huge metal bastions and the nets of pipelines pushing holy water she had seen in the north.
“The influence of the Wicked Fae is ever-expanding,” the Vestal replied with a concerned frown. “We must be ready to save as many souls as we can. Should we stand idle in the presence of evil?”
Mira scratched the side of her head, producing a faint metal scrape.
“I don’t think your hands are ever idle.” She leaned forward. The Vestal was a tiny woman and Mira towered over her by a good head. “I have seldom seen newborn Eerie still carrying the ropes that tied them to trees.”
“Oh, Spirits,” the Vestal replied widening her smile. “I had hoped my support with the treasurer had been enough to tighten your lips?”
A true missionary, faithful to her cause.
No matter what.
In a way, Mira could understand.
“Perhaps not quite enough.” Mira pushed her porcelain lips until they brushed against the Vestal’s ear. “I may need a further bit of payment.”
“And what are you asking of a poor woman? I only own whatever the Spirits generously lend me.”
“And information. I know your ilk – always so full of yourselves, sucking on information like a tick and laying nets like a spider.” A pause. “I want some of those informations.”
The Vestal pulled back. She regarded her with a neutral look, but Mira could feel the heat of her brain turning up as she processed what was going to happen.
“Very well,” she replied at last. “I suppose your silence ought to be repaid. You can ask one question.”
“I am just in need of one.” Mira’s eyes flashed crimson. “Where is the chief of your Order? Where can I find Mastra Verna?”
Author’s Notes: well, this is a bit embarrassing, but to be fair, while I enjoy working with the characters from Bondwitch, and I am rewriting it from the ground up, there’s just something that’s been lacking for the past few weeks. I am strongly thinking about switching gears and writing the novel with the three robot girls I introduced in the Stranders one-shot, or come back to Patina’s setting. There is just something to it that draws me in.
I suppose I will see what I can do. In the meantime, thanks for reading.